The Democratic presidential race between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders illustrates a growing generational divide in the African-American community. Although recent polls in the heavily black South Carolina primary point to a significant Clinton victory, enthusiasm around Sanders’ campaign is rising among younger black voters. We are asking a new question that would have stunned everyone before 2008: What comes after the first black president?
Call us the Caleb generation. To understand why, you have to go to church. In 2007, at an address at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Alabama, then-Sen. Barack Obama coined the phrase “the Joshua generation” to describe an emerging group of black political leaders. It was natural for Obama to anoint this group, for it was the sacrifices and accomplishments of the vaunted “Moses” generation — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. John Lewis and others — that laid the groundwork for the plausibility and success of Obama’s presidential campaign. Energized by his candidacy, young black people came out in droves in both 2008 and 2012, and their emergence as a political force may decide this race and the future of the Democratic Party.
The Bible describes Joshua’s leadership of the tribes of Israel and his mission to reclaim the land of Canaan for the Hebrews. Joshua is portrayed as a just, loyal, aggressive chieftain who assumes the mantle of leadership from Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt to freedom. One of Joshua’s followers is Caleb, a member of the tribe of Judah sent to spy on the Canaanites.
The black millennials who voted for Obama, and those even younger than we who are voting for the first time, are seeking new leadership before the departure of Obama. This Caleb generation is hungry for change, and we are just as animated as our biblical namesake.
For many African-Americans, Obama is a sacred totem. In spite of determined opposition, often in the form of racist demagoguery, the president has racked up a historic series of policy triumphs, all while presenting himself and his family as path-breaking exemplars of America at its best. Older blacks — including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, preachers, journalists and celebrities — are determined to defend Obama’s legacy.
However, younger blacks are more likely to take Obama’s election and reelection as givens as we confront new concerns. Staggering youth unemployment and the all too frequent images of young black men and women slain by the police haunt us more than the martyrdoms of Emmett Till or Fred Hampton. From Ferguson to Baltimore, the “destruction of black bodies” described by journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates in his award-winning book “Between the World and Me” is still routine, even under a black president. This persistent outrage points to the hollowness of the current political system.
As the Black Youth Project’s 2015 survey shows, although young African-Americans strongly support the Democratic Party and Obama, there has been a substantial drop in the belief that institutions and elites are drivers of change. Moreover, a majority feels that politicians don’t care about people like us. The joy of electing the first black president and the pride in daily media images of an attractive black family in the White House have receded with the realities of stubborn economic disempowerment, fear and isolation.
Therein lies the contest we see playing out in South Carolina right now between Clinton and Sanders. Sanders’ blowout margins among younger voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada demonstrate the appeal of challenging the orthodoxy of party politics and confronting systemic income inequality. So far, his greatest support has come from predominantly white college campuses. However, his campaign’s recent outreach to historically black colleges and universities shows that Sanders believes the intersection of a radical economic message and a focus on criminal justice issues could win votes from young blacks as well. Sanders’ confidence has been raised to the point where he has declared that he will be a better president on race relations than Obama.
Erica Garner, whose father Eric Garner was killed by police officers in New York City for selling loose cigarettes, recently endorsed Sanders with a moving video. As she put it, Sanders “was a protester. He’s not scared to go up against the criminal justice system. He’s not scared.” Garner is identifying Sanders with the protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement, whose rise reflects the outsize importance we and other millennials in general place on the issue of police brutality.
The black community’s support for Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, should not be underestimated. A legion of black politicians, community organizers, religious leaders and activists owes a great deal of debt to the Clintons. This explains the consistent belief in polling that a Clinton presidency would be more beneficial for African-Americans than a Sanders presidency.
Sanders is also a septuagenarian firebrand and a self-described democratic socialist with few ties to the Democratic establishment, and many blacks believe that Clinton would be more electable in November. In addition, Obama’s accomplishments such as the Affordable Care Act and the 2009 stimulus package have had real, positive impacts on black lives, and Clinton’s campaign has been loudly championing these achievements and promising to build on them. Sanders’ campaign, by contrast, carries an implicit critique of the Obama era. So Sanders faces a complicated task: convincing African-Americans of his electability and simultaneously praising Obama while offering better alternatives to his policies.
The tepid recovery from the financial crisis, combined with the failure of the black political establishment to connect with young voters, has created opportunities for both campaigns to jostle for the support of the Caleb generation. It remains to be seen whether we will opt out of politics altogether or make the necessary compromises to win political power. But the South Carolina primary and the rest of the campaign will reveal a lot about which way we’re headed.